Response to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith

Many of you know that Representatives Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) last week published a piece in USA Today advocating tighter controls of National Science Foundation funding.  Their piece seized on several archaeological research projects as symptomatic examples of ill-conceived scientific research priorities.  Representatives Cantor and Smith did not single out historical archaeology, but their aim is squarely on social sciences, and many historical archaeologists have been fortunate to receive NSF support.  NSF funding has significantly impacted the discipline, transformed many scholars’ careers, and supported many archaeological projects benefitting communities throughout the country.

Today the SHA has written Cantor and Smith responding to their piece in USA Today.  Cantor and Smith’s piece is perhaps a rhetorical assault on social sciences, but some legislators are intent on radically changing the NSF in particular, if not all federal funding of the sciences.  The potential for such changes at the highest levels of federal funding could have dramatic effects on historical archaeology.

In April, for instance, Smith (head of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology) wrote the NSF to dispute the funding of several projects, and he requested reviewers’ comments from five social science projects (none were archaeology projects); at nearly the same time Smith circulated his draft for the “High Quality Research Act,” a legislative effort to root out any grant that is not of “the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and … is not duplicative of other research project being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.” A revamped High Quality Research Act (now apparently named the “Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology [FIRST] Act”)  was expected to receive a committee hearing October 11th (but the committee has delayed the hearing in the midst of the government shutdown).  The legislation’s proposal to radically transform peer review—introducing more aggressive federal oversight of grant approvals and the review process–and emphasize the economic benefits of funded NSF projects has inspired significant uneasiness in the scientific community.

Despite these demoralizing circumstances, archaeologists and the SHA need to provide a firm response that underscores the genuine economic effects of preservation, heritage tourism, and archaeological research.  Simultaneously we should remind legislators of the profound educational benefits of archaeological and heritage interpretation that may be somewhat challenging to quantify financially.

We could plead that archaeology in general and historical archaeology in particular represent an infinitesimal slice of the NSF budget.  Objectively this is of course true, but such a defense fails to say anything about why the country should fund archaeology. Consequently, we need to clearly articulate the benefits of historical archaeology, and we certainly should be able to rationalize our publicly funded scholarship.  Cantor and Smith’s implication that archaeological funding is robbing research projects that might care for wounded veterans is a clumsy appeal to our emotional commitment to soldiers.  The funding for historical archaeology is not competing with the medical research addressing soldiers’ traumas, and our scholarship on battlefields from the 18th through 20th centuries truly complements the applied research serving wounded veterans.  Nevertheless, we do live in a moment in which we cannot rationalize archaeology simply by pointing to existing legislation (which is itself under attack), and we need to refute Cantor and Smith’s caricatures of archaeology as an irrelevant academic discipline.

The impact of NSF funding on historical archaeology has been tremendous.  National Science Foundation programs such as the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (see the New Philadelphia project for an example) have provided field research opportunities for many students who might otherwise never be exposed to archaeology or scientific research with scholarly mentors.  The NSF’s Dissertation Improvement grants have transformed many historical archaeology students’ careers.  Many of those projects were conducted in communities that experienced concrete economic impacts in heritage tourism and development.

We need to marshal those success stories—students’ lives transformed by NSF support, communities changed by NSF-funded archaeology—and make sure that Cantor, Smith, and potential allies recognize that archaeology reaches far beyond a few isolated academics.  If you directed a public project that received federal funding, consider having those community constituents write their legislators and Lamar Smith’s committee and underscore the benefits of archaeology in their experience.  If your career was transformed by an NSF Dissertation Improvement grant, now may be the time to express your gratitude to the NSF by reminding the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology how such grants change scholarship and careers.

SHA and our professional society peers can advocate for our collective benefit, but in many cases the concrete example of a community, career, or corner of scholarship changed by NSF support may be especially powerful.  We would be happy to post some of these letters on the SHA blog and provide concrete responses to the Hill that demonstrate the material, intellectual, and social benefits of historical archaeology.  The current rhetoric is indeed demoralizing, but I know that we can be eloquent advocates for historical archaeology.  We need to step forward and do so before the funding and legislative foundations of the discipline erode.

You can find the email address for your Representative by entering your zip code on the House of Representatives’ page. Email typically receives the most rapid response.

You can find your Senators’ email addresses and contact information on the US Senate page.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor has a Contact Page as well as a twitter feed @GOPLeader

Representative Lamar Smith does not respond to voters who are not his District constituents.  Visit his contact page for other ways of reaching him.

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About Paul Mullins

I am Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI), President of the Society for Historical Archaeology (2012-2013), and Docent in American Historical Archaeology at the University of Oulu (Finland). I'm the author of Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture (1999) and The Archaeology of Consumer Culture (2011). All opinions are mine alone and do not represent the Society for Historical Archaeology or IUPUI.